Letter: Dark skies, bright spirits

Dark skies star cluster photo by Filip Lolić via Wikimedia CommonsBy Filip Lolić via Wikimedia Commons

Have you noticed more lights at night around our county? I have. From where I sit on a farm in the F.T. Valley, the number of field and garage beacons illumined in the valley at night has increased.

Or so it seems.

I surveyed a cross-section of fellow residents from around Rappahannock County. All agreed the county was getting lit up more at night. No one was pleased about it, either.

But is the “citification” of our night skies in Rappahannock a legitimate concern? The Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) thinks so. I agree.

At its recent annual membership meeting, RLEP launched a “Dark Skies Initiative” to encourage us to reduce the use of artificial light at night.

Why care? Well, there are many general reasons. For example, every year lighted buildings cause a staggeringly high volume of bird mortality (due to crashes), cause turtle hatchlings on beaches seeking the ocean lighted by moonlight to become confused, and more perniciously cause reproductive, endocrine and migratory problems for animals as small as insects. Due to the natural relationships of all things, these problems cascade throughout the animal and plant kingdoms.

But, you might say, “C’mon man! Rappahannock is already pretty darn dark, and we don’t have sea turtles or tall buildings!”

Yeah, I agree. But that’s partly the point. I learned early in my 40 years of involvement in conservation issues that it’s much easier to preserve a natural asset than to restore the asset once it’s compromised.

And folks, we’re surrounded.

Satellite images of Rappahannock at night are startling. They show Rappahannock as a tiny island of dark in an ocean of lights. The wolf is at the door.

Since our night sky is relatively pristine, there is also what I call a “white rug” effect. Just as a spot of dirt is more noticeable on a white rug, the glare of artificial light stands out more against our (mostly) dark night vistas. Scientists say even small quantities of artificial light can obscure clear views of nighttime vistas and skies, impeding astronomy study.

Here in Rappahannock our nighttime skies and vistas are magnificent. You probably all have your own examples. Maybe it’s the moon rising over a darkened Red Oak Mountain, or the outline of a beautiful valley lit only by moon and starlight. Or maybe it’s the steady North Star, sitting at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle, always at the same place in the sky no matter the chaos below.

For sure I know that every time city folks step out my door on a clear night they say with awe and wonder, “Wow. Look at the Milky Way!” Or sometimes they exclaim, more poignantly, “Wow. I’ve never seen the Milky Way in real life before!”

As for my fellow Rappahannock residents, they told me they simply didn’t like to see so many artificial lights: “wasn’t natural,” “ruined the view,” “didn’t look right,” “too citified.” I share these sentiments.

The goal of preserving and protecting scenic values is expressed in our county’s comprehensive plan, as well as our hearts. Since it is dark — on average — half the time, our nighttime scenes are arguably among our most valuable.

There’s even a tourism marketing angle to dark skies: Come to our county, patronize our businesses, and we’ll throw in the Milky Way bending over the Blue Ridge for free! And of course the less light we burn, the more money we save and the smaller our carbon footprint.

So my humble request is to think twice about whether we need to turn on that outside light at night. Maybe we do . . . but maybe we don’t!

Jeff Smith

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